Big winners in the races for the 751 seats from the EU member-states included Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN), Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the Austrian Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, and the Greek Golden Dawn. Marine Le Pen has focused on opposition to globalism, called for withdrawal of NATO, an end to French immigration, and an initiative for France to decide whether it wants to remain in the EU, an agenda not very different from Vladimir Putin’s.
By John Gizzi l May 27, 2014
As reported worldwide, Sunday’s elections for the European Parliament vastly enhanced the clout of nationalist parties best known for their opposition to immigration and to the European Union (EU) itself.
Both the French National Front and the UK Independence Party were big winners with 26% (25 seats) and 29% (24 seats) respectively. “The people have spoken loud and clear,” exclaimed Marine Le Pen. “They no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalization and take back the reins of their destiny,” the BBC reported. Nigel Farage told the Daily Telegraph, “The political establishment will be terrified by this.” Farage echoed Le Pen’s sentiments and those of Eurosceptics and nationalists across the political spectrum, “The inevitability of European integration ends tonight,” BBC reported. The European political establishment represented austerity and bank bailouts in the face of the ongoing Eurozone crises of 2009, in the wake of the 2008 U.S. economic crash.
According to the Guardian, Farage’s UKIP alone is eligible for 44 million pounds ($74 million) in EU subsidies covering “salaries, allowances and staffing costs over the next five years;” a significant boost for any political party, understandably jolting the established status quo by its own bloated bureaucracy.
But the biggest winner of all may be a politician whose name wasn’t on the ballot in any of the 27 EU member states that last week voted for 751 parliamentary seats: Vladimir Putin, whose agenda in Russia and in Ukraine was championed by parties considered “nationalist” or “populist.”
“What Putin gains is support from Euroskeptics and nationalists,” said Dr. Ruth Wodak, Austrian communications specialist at Georgetown University, who has written extensively on nationalist parties in modern Europe, “They have the same enemies, so to speak, and similar ethno-nationalistic visions.”
Combined with the votes of the extreme left (who also support Putin), the nationalist parties have about one-third of the parliamentary seats. This, of course, is not enough to stop further sanctions against high-level Russian government officials or businessmen.
But, as Stephen Hix, an expert on European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the Washington Post: It’ll be easier for Putin to make fun of the Europeans. ‘Who do you represent? You don’t even represent your own people.’ He will play that card.”
Moreover, with the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) electing members of its ruling commission and the EU president for the first time, the potential exists for turmoil in choosing the successor to outgoing Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso.
The newly-enhanced ranks of the nationalist MEPs will not accept a “federalist” or “Europeanist” for Commission president, which is an accurate characterization of the two leading contenders: former Luxemburg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, German Social Democrat and current president of the European parliament.
For now, however, when the world’s eyes look at Strasbourg, France and Brussels, Belgium (respectively the homes of the EP and EU), they are likely to focus increasingly on what is starting to be called “the Putin bloc.”
“The Putin Bloc”
Big winners in the races for the 751 seats from the EU member-states included Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN), Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the Austrian Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, and the Greek Golden Dawn (whose leader Nikos Mihalaliakos is awaiting trial on charges of operating a criminal gang following the stabbing of a party critic in Athens).
The leaders of these parties are the first to let interviewers know that they are in no way, shape or form monolithic and, in most cases, will not work together. As FN leader, for example, France’s Le Pen, has taken pains since to remove the anti-Semitism brand long associated with it because of her father and predecessor as leader, Jean Marie Le Pen.
Since succeeding her father as leader in 2011, Marine Le Pen has focused on opposition to globalism, called for withdrawal of NATO, an end to French immigration, and an initiative for France to decide whether it wants to remain in the EU, an agenda not very different from Vladimir Putin’s.
But this is not enough for UKIP’s iconic Farage, best known for holding press conferences in pubs with an ever-present pint of beer in one hand and cigarette in another.
During this year’s campaign, Farage pointedly rejected any alliance in Brussels with the FN because of what he considered its “anti-Semitism and general prejudice.”
Nonetheless, “[UK Prime Minister David] Cameron said UKIP was a bunch of drunks and racists,” Le Pen shot back in an interview with the Financial Times, “[Farage] is no better. He’s using arguments against the FN of which he himself has been a victim. It’s dishonest.”
Le Pen and Farage, however, are on the same page when it comes to Putin and Russia.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington in November 2011, Le Pen surprised fans in the American “tea party” movement when she said, “I admire the way he made the oligarchs stop trying to sell their country in pieces” – a reference to the Putin-orchestrated arrests and trials of billionaire businessmen in Russia.
She also called for greater “discussions and exchanges” with Putin and then-Russian President Dimitri Medvedev (who Putin succeeded the following year and made prime minister) and that other nations dealing with Russia must “forget the past” and be “helping them.”
Earlier this year, Le Pen visited Moscow, where she met with Duma (Parliament) Speaker Sergei Naryshkin (the target of EU sanctions his involvement in the Ukraine crisis) and Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, and addressed students at the diplomatic school of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
“If one takes France’s example with Marine Le Pen, we have seen on several occasions her claims that Putin is her ally,” Elena Servettaz, herself a Russian expatriate in Paris who hosts a regular broadcast on Radio France International, told SFPPR News & Analysis. “She has had public meetings with Russians members of parliament, but she has never received clear support from any high placed official in the Putin circle. Putin has never acknowledged her and has never met with her. So the claim that she’s close to Putin comes only from her.”
However, Servettaz said, “we’ve seen who’s aligned with Marine Le Pen in Russia: the neo-nationalists who are not ashamed to do the fascist salute.”
Farrage has expressed his admiration for Putin as a politician and said that the EU has “blood on its hands” for its Ukraine policy.
While many of the European nationalist parties are unwilling to work with one another, a policy of “Hands Off Ukraine” appears to be their common denominator.
The German public TV station heute (March 12, 2014) reported that “The Russian organization known as the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy & Elections has invited several MEPs from right-wing parties, including the FPÖ [Austria] and Vlaams Belang [Belgium], Front National and the Lega Nord [Italy] to observe the referendum in the Crimea.”
The observers came to Crimea despite widespread denunciation from the U.S. and other Western nations of the referendum as “illegitimate” and “illegal.”
The degree to which Moscow itself is interested in who’s elected to the European Parliament may have best been illustrated by a story that gripped Europe days before the election.
According to several published reports, the Hungarian chief prosecutor wrote EP President Schulz requesting that MEP Bela Kovács, one of the top-ranked officials of the nationalist Jobbik Party, be stripped of his parliamentary immunity amid an investigation into evidence he was spying for Russia.
Kovács, an outspoken defender of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has met on a regular basis with Russian diplomats and has traveled to Moscow once a month.
Asked by the leading EU online news service EurActiv “how likely is it that Kovács may have had access to confidential information of interest to Russia in his activity as MEP, a spokesperson [for the European Parliament] answered that she could make ‘an intelligent guess that yes.’”
During a recent panel discussion hosted by the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum, Renzo Cianfanelli, columnist for the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, remarked that in the Ukraine controversy, “Putin has won the game in the first round. He has been ruthless and effective.”
Down further on the Russian strongman’s next step, Cianfanelli said, is “to disintegrate the European Union.” For Putin, he added, confusion in Europe “is a godsend.”
On the same panel, Antoine Ripoll, director of the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington, DC, noted the attitude in most of the EU member-states that permitted the success of the “Putin Bloc” in the parliamentary elections.
“Europeans at the moment don’t see Russia as the enemy,” said Ripoll, referring to Russia’s role as that which Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) described as “a gas station disguised as a country.”
“Our glue is our values and our interests,” said Ripoll.
Should that attitude continue, then it is likely that the actions of the “Putin Bloc” will resonate in Brussels and Strasbourg – beginning June 16th with the European Parliament electing members of a new EU Commission and taking the first steps toward choosing a successor to Barroso as EU President.
No one is taking any bets on the next EU president save to say that the 2014 campaign will surely be light years different from that of 2009, when Barroso secured his second term without opposition.
Beyond that, one can expect more spirited debate than ever over any future sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. The real tests of whether the Putin bloc will grow in ranks and influence in Europe will come down the line.
With United Kingdom national elections a year away, polls now show UKIP – so far unsuccessful at winning a single seat in the House of Commons – drawing 5% to 15% of the vote. With many polls showing Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party in a dead heat with Ed Milliband’s opposition Labour Party, it is not unthinkable that Farage and Company may emerge as the pivotal players.
In France, polls currently show Marine Le Pen leading embattled President Francois Hollande when he next faces the voters in 2017.
The “Putin Bloc’s” best performance yet took place this weekend. Whatever its follow-up acts and how long their run will surely be one of the defining sagas of European politics in the 21st Century.